The TAT Forum: a spiritual magazine of essays, 
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January 2012

Seeking and Headlessness
by Carl Laurence


The Talking Head

The name at the top of this essay is "assumed" in part to hinder web snooping. So why tell any personal story, assumed name or not? The intention here is to give some context to the head ingredient of the Douglas Harding term "headlessness." In the Jnana Yoga and Advaita Vedanta branches of Hinduism, there is a term, or mantra familiar to most non-dual seekers which goes: "neti neti." Its meaning is: "not this, not this," or "neither this, nor that." So what follows is some of this and that.

My childhood was noticeably more unhappy and disrupted than those of my friends and neighbors. I was raised a (mostly) strict Roman Catholic which means that there was an "otherworldly" component to daily life. Mystical things were on the daily menu. For example, one of the prayers I recited every night was: "Now I lay me down to sleep…. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep….If I should die before I wake….I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take." What the heck is "if I die before I wake" all about for god's sake? And every year on Ash Wednesday a somber priest would rub ashes on our little scrubbed Catholic foreheads and tell us: "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." Fine and dandy!

The unseen God was always there. He was watching. And he just might zap us out of existence at any time; on just a whim perhaps. This was "loaded" stuff to me.

We kids were directed to have oodles of one-way, petitionary conversations with our invisible friend Jesus mostly asking for help or confessing for messing up. This weirdness was so compelling to me that I tried to convince my mother to let me to enter the seminary to become a Catholic priest. This seemed all so crucial to a 13-year old. The seminary priests would presumably explain all this business about a "soul" and why this lifetime was just an opening act for infinity.

But the other, secret motive in scheming for priesthood training was the wish to flee from my mom. It was my budding teenaged opinion that mother was a "total nutcase." If she'd ever been psychologically diagnosed, it's likely the verdict would have been: manic-depressive. My younger sister and I still concur on that unschooled diagnosis. These days it's termed: bi-polar disorder. Whatever it was, our home was a wonky place to live. There were fearsome mood changes and wild emotional swings. We children were the 'uninvited burdens' who were trapping mom in her unhappy life. How do I know? She told me that I was the person "at fault" for my father's abandonment of the family when I was four years old! Despite her extraordinarily high intelligence, she'd never have been able to allow herself to see the irony in calling her own kid a "son-of-a-bitch." Or maybe she believed that all children are born with several brands of "original sin."

Later in life, I heard from a close relative an explanation that my parents had commenced a "battle" instead of a marriage. Sexual activity had turned violent, leading to "unwanted" children. That sounded about right.

I was prone to chronic childhood illnesses and had frequent nightmares. Early on, there were periodic "night terrors." Asthma almost killed me once, so the story goes. Jesus loved me, but most others considered me to be a bit of a moody little sh*t. Into my twenties, life on the "inside" was edgy, painful, and prone to nightmares. But the "outside," day-to-day life was usually compelling. Even the family melodramas were entertaining in their own unique way.

In the midst of all this, it seemed like the "spiritual search" came to me and not the other way around. Although I'd abandoned Catholicism at age 16, there was still a puzzle to be solved. Until I hit college the occasional ghost sighting kept questions popping up about the afterlife and the supernatural.

When college happened there was an explosion of life-changing alterations. Mind-altering stuff seemed to occur in every direction—mental, spiritual and physical. The "spiritual search" was just an ingredient in a life-sized "experiential soup." A fantastic culture emerged with its drugs, sex, rock-and-roll and social activism. Life was transformed. The term "psychedelic" is, oddly, derived from Greek and translates—"to manifest the soul." Sometimes I regarded what was happening in the "soup" as "soul-manifesting." But that didn't last.

Despite astonishing experiences (then we called them "mind-blowing"), no permanent answers manifested… except maybe one key illumination. Buddha said something like: "Life as we know it ultimately is or leads to suffering (dukkha) in one way or another." That sure seemed to have the clear ring of truth. No matter how enchanting or mystical or supernatural, eventually it would all take a dive into the heart of darkness. If the soul was supposed to become manifest in psychedelia, then I'd missed it.

For a single day, I met and spoke with a spiritual teacher named Baba Ram Das. Prior to adopting that name he'd been Richard Alpert. Notably (or notoriously), Alpert had helped Timothy Leary popularize psychedelic drugs in the sixties. Ram Das told me that spiritual seeking with a highly developed spiritual teacher would bring about true insight and continue the path of mystical experience. He said to go find one of those people.

I didn't have to trek around the world to find a guru. Along came a yoga-meditation teacher named Swami Rudrananda (Rudi). Rudi came right into the college town where I was living. By then, I was already convinced there was "karma" and "past lifetimes" thrown into the potpourri spiritual mix. I also met several life-long fellow seekers, one of whom is a current teacher—Bruce Rubin.

So began an intensive 10-year practice of yoga and meditation in an "uncommon" monastic setting. The monastic element was a highly disciplined approach with multiple mediation sittings on a daily basis. The "uncommon" part was a coed communal yoga-ashram composed of mostly former hippies.

The Meditative Head

During the 10 Ashram years, I embraced the idea that "spiritual seeking" was something practical and doable rather than some kind of belief-system. There were "practices" like meditation, yoga and various daily life disciplines. Spending 2 hours a day (every day) in group meditation and living apart from distractions like drugs and booze was the underlying discipline. Drugs were taboo. But, despite being called "practices," it turns out that this "new" paradigm still required beliefs; quite a few beliefs actually. To find out who you are, (or find the "soul" in my inherited terminology ) the scheme was to polish yourself up, and make yourself more and more qualified to have momentous discoveries about universal truths and your relationship to them. It was not unlike a lot of pre-existing Buddhist and Hindu models. There was much talk about "karma" being an obstacle that could be "surrendered." The person could open up to the flow of spiritual energy.

But here is the biggest problem: all that spiritual discipline is damn hard to pull off and keep up. And with some foggy spiritual payoff that might be delayed until the next few lifetimes, the patience-of-a-saint seemed a job requirement. Few had that resume. If one is passionate about living "their life," then the monastic life will inevitably become too restrictive. So…I fell off that spiritual wagon in my early 40's.

Then there was a time (and story about) raising a family, making money and seeing the world. But eventually, just like the prior disciplined "spiritual" search, that worldly "path" went kablooey.

Dark Night of the Soul / The Barrier

By 1999, most "spiritual" experiences no longer carried any special significance. The transformation of Richard Alpert to Baba Ram Das had become nothing more than a question and answer in the board game: "TRIVIA"! There was just one blended story about me and my experiences. I was encouraged to write a story, but there were no Lord-of-the-Rings type screenplays to be created from the jumble.

After all those years of seeking answers, I certainly didn't see that I was "on to something." I felt that I wasn't on to anything except depression. The descriptive term "dark night of the soul" sounds poetic, and gives an impressive sweep to telling the story of "poor me." However, even though the search began as a little kid, I didn't feel a step closer to understanding the "soul." I continued to have faith, but if faith was a flashlight the batteries were getting low. Instead of "Dark Night," teacher Douglas Harding has a term that seems to work better to summarize the years of wandering around lost on so many different paths. Harding calls it "The Barrier." And it brings to mind something less prosaic than Dark Night of the Soul. The Barrier brings to mind something more 'folksy' like…say: "The Squished Bug on a Windshield."

Harding said:

-- All I can say is that in my own life I'm quite sure I've experienced something very like the Dark Night of the Soul. It could not have been more traumatic or more distressing…

-- if you think of everything negative, that was about it…

-- I felt that I was still a mess, incredibly inadequate. I was shocked at myself for being so unregenerate, so short of what I was talking about. I felt that I had lost the love and confidence of my friends for good reason, that I wasn't somehow genuine, that my words far exceeded my performance.

-- it seemed that everything had gone wrong in an inexplicable way and that I was abandoned by God and man somehow.

Neti Neti

Rattling around near the nethermost levels, I contacted an old seeking friend. He recommended a book called Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. A few months later my friend added I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj to my "must read" list.

Years before, psychedelics had expanded and distorted consciousness. But what was being said in those books was not distorted at all. It was drastic and thorny but somehow completely resonant. The books had a huge effect on me.

Nisargadatta, in particular, struck a chord. Or maybe he struck quite a few chords, because along with the consonance came an unsettling dissonance. But both Tolle and Nisargadatta warned readers that there is no payoff for the "person" in awakening or becoming enlightened. In fact, there is no "person" at all to receive a reward.

My entire seeking career had been structured on the model of "personal spiritual growth." Those books crunched that model completely. There is no such thing as personal spiritual growth.

"Person" is a misconception. A person is not aware. Awareness is prior to the appearance of "person." Awareness just is and is all that is. Something we call "person" or "me" appears inside or upon Awareness in the same manner that these words appear inside and upon Awareness. There is no separate dual existence whatsoever. The good news to be distilled is that the "big-S" Self is the same thing as Awareness; just another name. The unacceptable news (to the person) is that "small-s" self just appears and disappears inside Awareness.

These "awakened" teachers are not dealing with conceptualizations as such. Instead of conceptualizing about the "this and that" of spirituality, Tolle and Nisargadatta essentially said it's all about "not this, not that" (neti-neti). Instead of adding to one's personal and spiritual repertoire, the approach is entirely subtractive.

I futzed around with re-readings and then studied Tolle's second book. Eventually, the "internal jury" arrived at the verdict that I wasn't going to "get" this Advaita Vedanta stuff without having a teacher. Anyway, how was it possible to have been "barking up only the wrong spiritual trees"? It didn't seem possible that an "advanced" spiritual student, such as myself, could really be that far off the mark. But the whole enchilada of non-dualism completely reenergized spiritual seeking. Although the depressed character (this writer) was still barking up, and banging into trees, there had been a gift presented. It's just that the instructions in the gift box were written in a completely undecipherable and unreadable language.

Thy Will Be Done

In 2007 I moved to Chapel Hill, NC for job reasons, and not expecting much of anything to pop up on the spiritual path. Then karma (or something) gave a firm shove and I landed…. kerplunk! … in a pool of satsang and sangha. It turned out that just down the road was not only an enlightened teacher (Bart Marshall), but a weekly discussion with an established self-inquiry group.

Many other resources became available too. There was the long-standing TAT Group in West Virginia and there were multiple visiting teachers. There was a whole blooming garden of people who were into discovering their original nature or had already done so.

Within a few months teacher David Lang came to North Carolina from England to conduct a "Headless Workshop" using techniques and exercises developed by Douglas Harding. The most well-known exercise is taking the index finger and pointing it in the direction of where we suppose we will find one's own face. As Harding says: "Point to what you're looking out of." From that vantage point, the idea is to see that who we really are is not limited to our face (head) and the self behind the face (head), but instead points into the limitless "No Face."

About 25 people participated in the individual and group drills for most of a Saturday. For me the outcome was… well… frustrating. I was looking for an "awakening;" some type of spiritual experience. But all that came was (at best) a rather feeble "thought" understanding. It doesn't take much to know that a person cannot see their own face without a mirror and that's about all I "got."

For weeks and weeks afterwards I tried to "notice." Harding said, "What is wrong is that people don't notice that they're doing it right." I was expecting a shift in consciousness, or something loosely psychedelic to just manifest; but… zip, zilch, nada ! I walked my dog for weeks trying the Harding finger exercises. After a while I was projecting that even Bella the dog suspected that her master was not the quickest bunny in the forest.

Nevertheless, the old dormant spiritual search had revived. There was energy, even enthusiasm. I was trying all sorts of strategies—extensive non-dual reading, attending retreats, isolations, regular meditation, and weekly self-inquiry meetings.

I was also trying desperately to decide how I could possibly "fix myself," especially the chronic pain and depression. But Bart Marshall kept reminding me in different (gentle) ways that:

A certain amount of persona-study is necessary to demystify the workings of one's particular vehicle. Beyond that it risks becoming a narcissistic indulgence. …

Deal only with those things that block the path and keep moving. Do not look right or left at extraneous quirks that appear to need fixing—Sirens conjured by the identity to distract and delay you. Don't get sidetracked trying to become a better robot. Don't waste time polishing the turd. It doesn't hold truth and it won't take a shine."

There was even the revival of prayer. My favorite prayer was: "Thy Will Be Done." I was beginning to get the sense, the intuition that "this person that I call me" was not in the driver's seat of spiritual seeking. Intuitively the sense grew stronger that the "I" could not possibly even hope to control anything.

Even depression and pain began appearing more as unwelcome guests sent from elsewhere. But labeling (as "God's Will") such nasty-goings-on doesn't make the pain and the depression less unpleasant. It just creates another place to lay the responsibility other than on the "self." But that's a much bigger deal than one would initially expect. For me it was a "paradigm shift." No longer was anything "up-to-me." This shift allows a person to "do" without (much) expecting of anything to come from the doing. If it's all up to God, then there is no reason to try to make things better. If things seem to be getting worse, there's also no reason to assume it's a result of actions or inactions of the "person."

But there's a tendency to rebel occasionally when a lot of unhappiness, pain and darkness continues to happen. So… even if there's an enduring dialogue with a "higher power" the personality of the petitioner might continue to be sour and disagreeable. Fortunately, it doesn't matter.

Quoting Bart Marshall:

True prayer is to enter into an ongoing relationship with the highest power you can imagine and hold it accountable for anything and everything in your life. Thank it when you feel grateful, curse it when you feel wronged, but never doubt for an instant that you are helpless without it. Trust it, become its instrument, but let it know in no uncertain terms what you want."

So… if you've been paying attention, the writer of this little essay has had a life-long tendency to feel "more-or-less "f*cked over." Consequently, as a petitioner in prayer there was a tendency to be a "bellyacher."

But keeping in mind that the sufferer has not much to say in the matter, at least it seemed a good practice to keep the lines of communication open with the "head honcho" (a/k/a—the One, the Source, the Absolute). There's no hiding.

As Nisargadatta Maharaj puts it:

You can never isolate yourself from the consciousness unless consciousness is pleased with you and gets rid of you. Consciousness opens the gate to transcend consciousness.

The Essential Understanding

The essential Understanding is that in reality nothing is. This is so obvious that it is not perceived. —Wei Wu Wei

It was last December 2010. The depressive feelings and lingering darkness were getting the upper hand on a habitual basis. The underlying faith that always seemed to have been hanging around had shifted. No longer was there much hope of the "little guy" bringing about his own personal salvation. As the poet Rumi said: "Whoever brought me here will have to take me home ."

In the course of three years I'd met a truly unexpected number of people who had undergone complete enlightenment and others claiming remarkable awakenings. Previously, I'd believed that enlightenment was extremely rare, highly unlikely.

Although it was a considerable "seeking shift" to recognize that "me-the-person" wasn't to blame for failure and that the other people had not "accomplished" their realizations, there was still a lot of envy mixed in the unhappiness.

Even the great sage, Ramana Maharshi admitted that: "In the (realized) Sage the ego rises again and again, but he recognizes it for what it is, and it doesn't do him harm." But as my ego rose again and again there seemed to be harm. After all, this ego was highly trained to function as a self-fulfilling ego. Conscious and subconscious beliefs and convictions popped up regularly. If the ego of an enlightened Sage rises, what chance does a mere seeker have of witnessing the ego presumably recede and disappear again and again?

As was my persistent "character type" from a young age, it was a moody old jerk who arrived for our regular SIG meeting in Raleigh for sanga and satsang in December. On the way to the meeting, I'd been praying and having internal conversations with "God." These weren't traditional Catholic (or even Buddhist) prayers. They were along the following lines of consultation: (1) "Hit me with your best shot… Fire away!" and "Enough of this sh*t… OK? Enough is f**king enough!."

That particular evening the meeting was to begin with a "rapport" sitting. I like the following description of "rapport" from teacher Art Ticknor: "Begin with fresh eyes: … see your friend for the first time. … The door is open… At the center … you and the friend … are not two."

But it was going to be a choppy ride for me; or so I thought. Rapport sometimes seemed to me to be an overly theatrical production. But any sangha was better than no sangha at all.

As we were sitting with our eyes open, the room sort of washed out. For me it became more like a regular eyes-closed meditation with "watching" happening in the internal direction. There was a familiar (for me) full body shiver that I used to call "shakti" in Ashram meditation days. Also appearing was a familiar "OM sound" which was an additional holdover from early meditation training. I'd come to regard these appearances (the shakti and OM) as a call to "attention," or a beckoning to engage in the activity of attending right now in the present moment. But in the past it was more like: "Hey you… pay attention." As long as there was a "me" to pay attention then I could claim that this was "my experience of the present moment… my experience of "now"…But not this time. This time it was entirely odd and way out of the ordinary.

One way to tell what happened is this: "I just saw emptiness where my head usually appeared to be. So I was momentarily headless. So I just had the experience of headlessness!" But that isn't really it. That's just another story about this so-called person and one of his many so-called experiences.

Another way to describe it is to say that there was "just absence happening" and it was glimpsed without the personal "head" immediately stepping in and taking ownership of an "experience." Since, for some inexplicable reason, the "head" did not take ownership, the experience was "headless." This is a better description, but still not exactly right.

The more I tried to write and rewrite this essay, the more it seemed that our common way of using words ends up distorting these things. In order to get to the heart of the matter, the language used by realized, non-dual teachers needs to be borrowed. Every story told contains the regular nouns and verbs. The person is always a noun who "experiences" (verb) or is said to "have experiences" (possessive). That's the big problem because nouns and verbs essentially form a duality in the manner of communicating.

But there's another way to explain the "glimpse" or "satori" of headlessness by borrowing some concepts from those who have "awakened." According to Douglas Harding's description, "headlessness is an 'absenting' unfolding in Awareness without a person (a personal 'head') to immediately make it into a 'story'." In place of the silly fellow (me) who thought he was attending a rapport meeting, was only Awareness continually emptying and refilling itself. Douglas Harding says: "It's a verb rather than a noun, an ever renewing absenting."

Teacher Paul Hedderman puts it this way:

Life is a VERB. It's just happening. Not TO anyone. Just energy, ripping like crazy. But Self makes a NOUN of itself. A thing. The illusion of being a noun is that everything is happening from outside TO YOU….. All day, every bit of conscious contact that is continually happening, your head is claiming it, as YOU being the one in contact.

Mr. Hedderman goes on to explain that the "self" is just a story the mind's continually running. "Life is happening; it's a verb. The verb is the reality and the noun is the illusion."

Given "personhood" (noun) as illusion, the personal head is also illusionary. The experience of "having no head" then is a glimpse into the continual changing called Awareness that opens or appears in the direction of looking and is 'absenting' otherwise. There is no-thing to be seen to which the person can attach a story. So we end up using words like Void, Emptiness, No-thing, Stillness and Absence. As long as there's still a personal story, there's really no choice….unless one wants to say: "Looking was just happening… but there's nothing that can honestly be said beyond that." Who was looking?

The awakening called "headlessness" is a moment when the illusion of being a noun is seen through. The so-called personal "head" is absent and so is the person. There's no context for this. How can this 'seeing" be happening without a seer? When the regular personal story comes back into its illusionary focus, it becomes a story about what has just happened to "me." The person interprets this glimpsing as a personal seeing of "emptiness" and having no head.

But this revelation is somewhat misleading in the way it's interpreted when a story is told about it. It appears empty in retrospect because the "person" has disappeared. This disappearance is from the point of view of the person-as-story-teller. This is so unusual that the person interprets this "seeing" as a spiritual awakening for the person.

Maybe it can be said that a similar "seeing" is happening in one's dreams during the night. The dream is just going on, but not from the perspective of "having a head." There is just dreaming happening. It's only after we wake up that the dreaming is called "my dream" and I identify myself as "the dreamer."

But just like there is no static person, there is no static absence. It's the ever-present "absenting" that is just being glimpsed minus the personal story about it. But, since God/Awareness has not seen fit to lop off the head permanently, it becomes yet another story. This time the story is about headlessness. But what a wonderful, brilliant, astounding story it is!

After words

At the time the original talk was given I explained that the headlessness was "intermittent,"…. coming and going. I suppose that this is still an accurate report, but it's an ongoing story.

There has been a permanent change to the overall character of looking. From where I sit right now, I'd contend that "glimpses" are happening to most everyone quite regularly. It's just that they're almost always missed.

Perhaps because we are so overwhelmed by "the-story-of-me" it becomes nearly impossible to incorporate anything that is out of that "box." These otherwise common "peeps" have no place in "my" story so they are ignored, censored or misinterpreted as my "experience." The easiest method of incorporation would be to simply say that, "I had a spiritual experience." That's what we hear quite often.

What is a spiritual experience? Well….it's certainly a good question for self-inquiry. According to Mr. Harding, if you keep asking that question this "easy part of awakening" (called headlessness) will eventually be seen.

Jesus reportedly said in the gospel of Thomas, "Let the seeker not stop seeking until he finds. And when he finds, he will be greatly troubled, he will be astonished and he will reign over the All."

I was attracted to this quote because the words "greatly troubled" and "astonished" are pretty good descriptors for moments in which there is "headlessness." I'm astonished at how this "glimpsing" seems to be eroding the "story of me." This is also greatly troubling because it's an "un-fooling" that's distinctly unpleasant for the ego. The part about "I" will reign over all is presumably still to come. But there's no doubt that this "I" does not mean the fool in the story of "me."

While I'm waiting, it's completely remarkable (astonishing really) to see how the "story" keeps losing its grip. For example, chronic pain still makes a regular appearance in the story, but the (heretofore) solid resistance, resentment, and emotional angst are melting down. The narrative about pain has become… frankly… uninteresting. Even when pain itself demands attention, it's more-or-less just another story about pain. Enough is enough of the stories already!

If all of our "stories" are fictional narratives then I suppose there is no narrative more inane than any other. So, at some risk (to my credibility) here's a seemingly ridiculous final note. There's a recurring appearance of a character in this story named "the OM sound." There have been times when this character was dismissed as a medical condition, or considered to be like one of those annoying songs that just pops into the head uninvited and sticks around. Now it's quite welcome. Like the comic character Bugs Bunny, it shows up serendipitously and asks: "What's up Doc?" The sound (that's not even a sound) just shows up and arouses "attending."

When attending is happening… then attending to the moment (otherwise called "presence") is happening. Douglas Harding said that presence is surrender. No person is required for surrender or presence. They just make their appearance in Awareness. And these moments are regularly quite pregnant with the possibility for headless seeing.

~ Contact .

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